A little bit about beets, including a basic recipe

A while back, The Boston Globe got together a group of foodies to see if, when presented with two seemingly-identical dishes, they would prefer the version made with local ingredients or the one whipped up from ingredients that had traveled from places like California, Texas and Mexico.

Beets of Many Varieties

Beets of Many Varieties

The results were a little surprising. As far as produce goes, the tasters, for the most part, could discern little difference between veggies that had grown up within commuting distance to Boston and those that had been trucked a few thousand mile.

With the exception of beets, that is.

“Locally grown red beets seem like a different vegetable from the traveled ones,” effused Globe correspondent Ike DeLorenzo.The beet lovers, he reported, declared local beets “sweeter,” with “better texture” and “fresher.” Even the beet-haters found something to like about them.

I’m not surprised. I wasn’t much of a beet person until, intrigued by the description in a seed catalogue for the peppermint-striped Italian heirloom Chioggia, I planted my first batch. I’ve been a convert ever since.

Not only are beets gorgeous – they come in an array of colors, from green-shouldered White Detroits, to cadmium orange Golden Grex, to the aptly named Bull’s Blood – but they’re one of the earliest vegetables to be harvested in our cold climate. Tender young beet leaves make a delicious, colorful addition to salads only a month into early summer.

Older leaves, which need to be cooked to be tenderized, can be used just like Swiss chard (chard is actually a kind of beet that’s bred for leaf rather than root production). Sauteed with garlic and hot red pepper in olive oil, they make a great topping for pasta. Blanched and chopped, they’re often a main ingredient, along with cheese, in one of the savory peasant pies of Mediterranean countries, like Greece and Italy.

Beet greens eventually grow back to nourish the growing roots. Harvest of these begins with the baby-beets of early summer and ends in fall, when hefty storage beets are pulled before voles and chipmunks wipe them out. These will keep in a cool place all winter, and provide antioxidants, fiber, folates and more, not to mention some much needed color and sweetness on short, dark days.

Though traditionally boiled until soft, I much prefer baking my beets. Wash them well, but don’t bother peeling. Place them in a baking dish and cover the dish with a lid or foil. Bake at 350℉ or so (a bit higher or lower doesn’t matter, if you’d like to slide them in when cooking something else) for about an hour, or until they can be pierced easily with a knife.

Let them cool until they can be handled, and then slip their skins off before serving or using in another recipe.

If you’re in a hurry, raw beets are terrific peeled and then grated before being tossed with vinaigrette. For herbs that marry well with beets, try tarragon, dill or caraway to flavor the dressing.

A big spoonful of Dijon mustard whisked into the vinaigrette is also a nice foil to the beets’ sweetness.

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